JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the woods a few miles east of
NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI, USA

July 22, 2012

CARDINAL TEENAGER
Nowadays often you see adult birds flying around with juveniles in tow. If the adult finds food the kids rush close begging piteously, gaping and quivering their wings. As days pass the young are supposed to take more responsibility for their own food-gathering but of course it's easier to be fed by parents, so if you watch these foraging families closely you witness many moments of awkwardness and tension -- as when an adult suddenly seems to fly off the handle and peck at a beggar instead of feed it; then you see the confusion of both parties, maybe even guilt. We're not supposed to anthropomorphize when watching the behavior of other animals, but nowadays it's hard to keep from it.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722cd.jpg you see a juvenile male Cardinal whose blotchy plumage shows that he's at an age equivalent to that of a teenage human. The full glory of his future red-feathered maleness is only half developed, the black "beard" is little more than a fuzzy dinginess, and the cocky crest is only half formed. The behavior of such birds matches their looks. They explore spots the adults don't go to, yet they never range far beyond the family unit. You might see them flying so enthusiastically that upon landing they trip, or momentum carries them beyond their landing pad. They try to eat things the adults never would bother with.

But, it's a pleasure seeing these new birds, especially when you think of all the hazards around them, the habit destruction, the herbicides and pesticides people spray, even the unruly weather. Despite all that, here's a fresh new bird who looks intact and eager to get on with business in every way, a whole new generation coming of liquid, springtime callings of "chur birdy birdy birdy birdy birdy burr... "

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COUNTING SKINK SCALES, AND A TICK
In bright early-morning sunlight, in the tulip bed down on the leaf litter, a slender, six-inch long (15cm), blue-tailed skink prowled about pausing from time to time to soak up the sunlight. I was tickled to see him, but also I knew he was a challenge. The challenge was that now I had to get close enough to get a picture on which I could count the lines of tiny scales covering his body. You can see the resulting image at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722sk.jpg.

The reason the skink's scale lines needed to be counted is that here in southwestern Mississippi we have the Five-lined, Southeastern Five-lined and Broad-headed Skinks, all whose juveniles are slender and blue-tailed, just as in the picture. Without examining technical details in a captured skink, the only way I know to be sure which species is at hand is to count the scales between the middle of the back and the first white line on the side.

Best I can count, the top white line on this skink's side occupies the third and fourth scale rows. If that's true, here we have the Five-lined Skink, EUMECES FASCIATUS. You can see an older individual we documented here this April at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120415sk.jpg.

On the above picture, notice the dark brownish-gray, shiny, egg-shaped tick stuck to the skink's body behind the front leg.

Nowadays much attention is being paid to the matter of ticks on lizards, for it's thought that sometimes lizard ticks play a role in spreading Lyme disease. One mystery being studied now is why, since we have so many deer ticks here in the Deep South -- which presumably can carry Lyme disease -- the disease is predominantly a problem in the Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest states. It would be nice to find that our southeastern skinks have something in their bodies toxic to Lyme Disease pathogens.

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LARGUS BUG WITH A PASSENGER
For about a month a certain kind of bug has been very conspicuous running across the ground, climbing among low tree branches -- just about wherever plants occur. At first mostly individual bugs were seen but gradually joined-together, mating couples became more common, until about two weeks ago nearly all the bugs seen were mating, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722bg.jpg.

These are Largus Bugs, LARGUS SUCCINCTUS. We already have a Largus Bug page on which we say that they are "...general feeders, never inserting their strawlike proboscises into human skin, but rather sucking juices from a variety of plants such as oak, wax myrtle and other woodland foliage or even 'weeds.' In general they cause little injury to the plants upon which they feed." They occur from New York to Florida and Arizona.

Maybe the most interesting feature of our photo is that atop the larger bug on the right, three tiny, white eggs are visible, as well as a reddish item that must be a newly hatched larva from one of the eggs. Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario, who figured out that these were Largus Bugs to begin with, on the Internet found pictures of such eggs on Largus Bugs and references to a species of Tachnid fly, genus Trichopoda, who parasitizes Largus Bugs. Tachnid fly species often are used as biological control agents of insects that feed on agricultural and horticultural crops. The adult flies are about the size of an average House Fly. Here is a typical Tachnid fly life cycle:

Females cement eggs to their victim's exteriors, exactly as shown in our photograph. The larvae burrow from the egg directly into the bug's body, with only one larva surviving within each bug. The larva, a maggot, feeds on the living bug, eventually killing it. When the maggot exits the bug's body it drops to the ground and pupates in a dark, reddish-brown puparium. A new generation of adult flies emerges to lay eggs about two weeks later. Each female fly may lay several hundred eggs, and there may be three generations each year, depending on location.

So, we're witnessing a little tragedy here: Presuming the larger, parasitized bug on the right to be the female, which is usually the case, it seems that despite her success in mating, her future as a mother is in doubt.

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LIVE OAK MOOD
Lately we've been looking at our local oaks, finding that sometimes distinguishing the look-alike species can be challenging. This time we have an oak whose general form is so distinctive that mature trees easily can be identified to species level from a distance. It's the Live Oak, QUERCUS VIRGINIANA. You can see one with its widely spreading, massive lower branches heavily festooned with Spanish Moss at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722qu.jpg.

That moody, early-morning picture with a bit of mist still on the land is taken at an abandoned homestead near here. That's relevant information because I'm unsure whether our corner of southwestern Mississippi is within the Live Oak's natural distribution area. The USDA's classic Silvics of North America shows the species in Mississippi restricted to the coastal counties south of us, but the online Flora of North America shows us on the northern limit of its distribution. Though Live Oaks are common here, I've not seen any that probably wasn't planted, or near planted trees.

The Live Oak's leathery, evergreen leaves and acorns also are characteristic, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722qv.jpg.

The immature acorns in that photo grow on unusually long stems, or penduncles, and the nut's cup is particularly deep. Some mature ones picked up beneath the above tree are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722qw.jpg.

Pictures of Live Oak acorns on the Internet show nuts emerging farther from their cups.

In the old days Live Oak was an important timber tree, producing very heavy, strong wood. Today it's regarded as growing too slowly to be encouraged as a timber tree. Something that used to be important about Live Oaks for indigenous Americans was that Live Oak seedlings develop large, starchy, underground tubers that in the past were gathered, sliced, and fried like potatoes for food. The Houma people of Louisiana used the Live Oak medicinally for healing dysentery.

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DEVIL'S WALKINGSTICK FLOWERING
At woods edges these days a small -- usually about 20 feet tall (6m) -- fairly common but very unusual tree is flowering, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722hc.jpg.

Topping the tree's unbranched trunk, the massive, yard-wide (1m) flower head containing hundreds of tiny, whitish flowers is spectacular and unusual, but even more transfixing is the twice-compound leaf. In the picture, the entire collection of leaflets occupying the left and center part of the picture constitutes one gigantic compound leaf. In fact, often this species is described as producing the largest of all temperate, North American leaves, up to 48 inches long (1.2m). A leaf is what emerges from a stem's leaf bud, so there must be some fancy folding inside this tree's buds to accommodate such a gigantic, complex leaf. You can better see a leaf's structure, with its petiole attaching to the stem at the far right, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722hd.jpg.

The most-used English name for this tree is Devil's Walkingstick, though the species is noteworthy enough to go by several such names, including Hercules' Club, Prickly Ash, Prickly Elder and Angelica-tree. It's ARALIA SPINOSA, a member of the Aralia Family in which we also find Ginseng, Spikenard and English Ivy.

With such names it's no surprise that Devil's Walkingstick stems are gloriously spiny, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722hb.jpg.

How many times as a kid in Kentucky did I get a bloody hand while climbing a steep hill, helping myself along by grabbing onto tree trunks, one of which turned out to be a Devil's Walkingstick?

Devil's Walkingsticks occur from New York to Florida westward to Ohio, Illinois, and Texas, preferring rich, moist soil. They often form clonal thickets by sprouting from their roots.

The tree's young leaves before the prickles form can be eaten as a potherb. Later in the year the big flowering head will be replaced by a big fruiting head absolutely loaded with black, elderberry-like berries. I read that North America's indigenous people ate the fruit, but I find their taste too bitter to deal with. Birds like them, though. Also I read that the berries are medicinal, used in too many ways to mention, so that's another indication that they shouldn't be eaten.

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SWEETGUM BALLS
We've written a good bit about Sweetgum trees at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/sweetgum.htm.

Nowadays sometimes you find Sweetgum "balls" falling -- spherical, spiky fruit-heads. You can see an immature ball still on its twig at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722lq.jpg.

Sweetgum balls are technically known as capsular heads. Used in this sense, a capsule is a dry fruit composed of more than one chamber and which splits open at maturity to release seeds. In the picture, notice that the ball's spikes appear in pairs, and that the paired spikes often curve toward one another. Between some of them there are openings. What's happening is that each capsular fruit bears two spines, which in the flower were paired stigmas. Now the capsular fruit is opening between the two spines. You can see a mature ball with its capsules wide open and the papery-winged seeds already dispersed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722lr.jpg.

You might be interested in seeing a local Sweetgum's flowering heads as they emerge in January at http://www.backyardnature.net/flswtgum.jpg. In that picture, the spherical items comprising an upward spreading pyramid are clusters of male flowers, while the three drooping spherical items are clusters of female flowers. After pollination, the male flower clusters fall onto the ground, but the female ones expand during the summer, becoming spiky "balls."

Notes from my hermit days in this area indicate that most Sweetgum balls fell in the winter. Really only a few balls are falling now, so I think I'm seeing the species merely being flexible and spreading its investments. In fact, I think of Sweetgums as a very adaptive species. On our Sweetgum page we document mountaintop island populations of Sweetgum in southern Mexico where the species is evolving toward predominantly three-lobed leaves instead of the mainly five-lobed leaves prevalent up here. Also, if you abandon a field in this area Sweetgums often are the earliest tree pioneers. Sweetgum's adaptability should serve it well as the effects of global warming intensify.

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CAMPHORWEED
During recent heavy rains certain low-lying areas here got flooded. You can see an interesting "weed" emerging from the water of a low-lying, abandoned field at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722pl.jpg.

With flower heads composed of smaller clusters of tiny, packed-together flowers, at a distance you can see that this is a member of the Composite or Aster Family. A close-up of several flower heads is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722pm.jpg.

Each of those urn-shaped items contains several "real" flowers. The heads of most species in the Composite Family contain two kinds of flowers, cylindrical ones called disk flowers and flat ones that stick out like petals do in a regular flower, called ray flowers. This species bears no ray flowers, just disk ones. The brown items emerging from some of the disk flowers are stigmas where pollen germinates.

In the flower picture notice a certain graininess covering the plant's vegetative parts. Those "grains" are glands containing powerful and odoriferous chemicals such as flavonoids, triterpenes and sesquiterpenes. Crushed leaves of this plant emit a powerful odor, which accounts for the plant's name, Camphorweed -- camphor being much used medicinally, as in Vicks VapoRub.

Camphorweed is PLUCHEA CAMPHORATA, native to the US Southeast and nearby states, as far north as Pennsylvania and Kansas. Traditional medicinal uses of the plant include applying the leaves to wounds to keep down swelling and facilitate healing. In certain cultures it is thought that Camphorweed stimulates tissue by moving blood to the surface.

Down in the Yucatan we ran into another powerfully smelling, medicinal Pluchea, Pluchea carolinensis. That species is used in the Caribbean against sore throats, sinus problems and other ailments. Because of the "variations on a theme" thing you might enjoy comparing our Mississippi Pluchea with the Yucatan one at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/pluchea.htm.

*****

SNEEZEWEED
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722he.jpg you see a knee-high roadside and pasture weed that these days is common, easy-to-identify and interesting. It's the Bitter Sneezeweed, HELENIUM AMARUM. Six sneezeweed species are listed for Mississippi. Yellow Sneezeweed is distinguished from the others by its very slender leaf parts and the yellow, spherical "eye" of its composite heads. Most other species have dark "eyes."

Back on the farm in Kentucky we knew all about Bitter Sneezeweed and made sure it didn't grow in the pasture because if the cow ate it her milk would be bitter. All parts of the plant contain the glycoside gudaldin and can cause toxic symptoms in grazing animals, especially horses and mules. Symptoms include weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, bloating, staggering, salivation, labored respiration, rapid and irregular pulse, spasms, convulsions and death. The seeds have poisoned humans by contaminating flour.

Sneezeweed doesn't cause hay fever. Its pollen is too heavy and gummy to ride air currents and get into our noses. The Sneezeweed name arose back in the days when people were likely to put snuff up their noses in order to provoke sneezing and "clearing of the head." Apparently if you poke Sneezeweed leaves up your nose they'll serve the same purpose. However, though I find the crushed leaves' strong odor almost pleasant, with their toxic chemicals I'd hesitate to stuff them up my nose.

Bitter Sneezeweed is native to the US Southeast and northern Mexico, plus it's been introduced in other states such as Massachusetts and California.

*****

FLATSEDGE PICTURESQUE AT FLOOD-TIME
You can see a plant characteristic of poorly drained areas such as ditch bottoms, pond edges and wet pastures -- this plant with only its flowering head emerging above floodwater, with a water strider sailing atop the water's surface below it -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722cy.jpg.

This is not a grass -- not a member of the Grass Family, the Poaceae -- but rather it belongs to the Sedge Family, the Cyperaceae. Like the Grass Family, the Sedge Family is a big one, with some 5,500 species in about 109 genera. Many people assume that Sedge Family members are grasses, but there are important differences. The most easily seen distinction between the two families is that grasses typically have stems that are round in cross-section, while stems of members of the Sedge Family normally are triangular. Grass leaves tend to alternate with one another on the stem, but in the Sedge Family they are spirally arranged, in three ranks, not two.

Our plant in the picture belongs to one of the largest and most widely spread genera of the Sedge Family, the genus Cyperus, for which about 600 species are recognized -- about 45 listed for Mississippi. The most famous species of the genus Cyperus is Papyrus of ancient Egyptian paper fame. In Mexico we had the ornamental Umbrella-Plant, also African in origin, which we profile at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/umbrella.htm.

Our flooded Cyperus is CYPERUS VIRENS, in the literatures often called Green Flatsedge. It's native to and common in the American tropics and subtropics, from South America up to the US Deep South, and it's been introduced into California.

The most characteristic feature distinguishing Green Flatsedge from many other Cyperus species is how its numerous flowers are stacked above one another in very flat spikelets (thus the name flatsedge), and the spikelets are gathered in densely spiked heads, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722cz.jpg.

That flowering head is inhabited by a surprising community of spiders and insects, apparently seeking refuge from the flooding.

Also, notice that Green Flatsedge's spikelet clusters are grouped at the end of slender stems, called rays, that arise other slender rays. Some other flatsedge species bear similar heads of flat spikelets but their heads are on stems arising directly from the main stem; their inflorescence stems are not branched. Some Green Flatsedge plants even display third-order branching.

Among ecological services provided by the Green Flatsedge is the production of many tiny seeds eaten by small birds and mammals, and the mere fact that it grows robustly, photosynthesizing oxygen for all of us, in places too waterlogged for other plants to grow in.

*****

LILY TURF FLOWERING
Around the trunk of a big Black Oak along the driveway a certain mat- or turf-forming herb is flowering now. It's an ornamental good to know because not only does it make an attractive, easy to maintain potted plant, but also in shaded, dry areas it hangs on year after year forming an attractive, dark-green turf about ankle high, and it spreads and spreads where other plants just can't survive. Most of the year you see only grasslike leaves, but nowadays plants are issuing little spikes of tiny white flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722li.jpg.

A close-up of a flower with its perianth (undifferentiated calyx and corolla) of six parts, six stamens curiously curving downward, and a thick, blunt style curving upward, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120722lj.jpg.

This is one of several plants known as Lily Turfs, a member of the genus LIRIOPE, from eastern Asia. "Keying it out" in the online Flora of China I find that it's not the much planted Liriope muscari because that species does not produce stolons, or underground stems that shoot off a mother plant to emerge as a new plant, while our plants vigorously develop them. It's not the other commonly planted Liriope, either, Liriope spicata, because that species has longer anthers than this one's, which are only about 1.3mm long. Our species' leaves are much too wide to be the other possible Liriope species, so I assume that we have some kind of hybrid for which the binomial system just doesn't work.

Another good thing about this lily turf is that the deer don't eat it. Around here that's a major advantage.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Seeing the Sky" from the June 15, 2003 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/030615.htm

"Seeing Beyond Nostalgia's Pig" from the December 31, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/071231.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Even without having a Facebook account you can access an index to this week's essays, with each essay on its own page and with images embedded in the text, on the Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jim-Conrads-Naturalist-Newsletter/412345652126940.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net